New York City had a drinking problem in 1895, or rather a legal problem concerning drinking because the sale of alcohol was prohibited on Sunday throughout the state. As President of the Police Board of Commissioners, Teddy Roosevelt chose to take on machine politics and the entire city by rigidly enforcing the prohibition as a case study in equality under the law.
New York City had a drinking problem in 1895, or rather a legal problem concerning drinking because the sale of alcohol was prohibited on Sunday throughout the entire state. The “Sunday Excise Law” was honored in the city itself far more in the breach, as evidenced by the approximately 3,000,000 glasses of beer alone served weekly. That is until Theodore Roosevelt became President of the Police Board of Commissioners, promising to reform a corrupt system and remove machine politics from the operations of the force. A decade earlier, however, Roosevelt was a state Assemblyman who had vociferously opposed the law in question, even though he was not much of a drinker himself after a bad experience at Harvard. He described the prohibition, which was passed before the Civil War, but had to be renewed periodically, as a “terrible curse,” saying that “no more terrible curse could be inflicted on this community than the passage of a prohibitory law.” He also recognized that it was not likely to be enforced, believing it “is idle to hope for the enforcement of a law where nineteen-twentieths of the people do not believe in the justice of its provisions.” As a member of the city’s executive branch, charged with ensuring the equal application of the law, Roosevelt saw his role differently and considered himself honorbound to enforce even those he didn’t support in principle. Repealing the law was up to the legislature, not the police. Whether everyone enjoyed violating it each and every weekend, the rich and the poor, immigrants and natives, was not his concern. The working poor in particular had a vested interest in breaking it given that Sunday was their only day off at the time. German immigrants were also adamantly opposed, a stein or two after church was a tradition brought with them to America that dated back hundreds of years.
Roosevelt was aware of all this, but remained unmoved, telling the press when he announced the policy, “I do not deal with public sentiment. I deal with the law,” and that the prohibition law must apply “just as much to the biggest hotel as the smallest grog-shop.” So it was that on June 10, 1895, he instructed all officers to “rigidly enforce” the closing of all saloons between midnight Saturday and midnight Sunday. “No matter if you think the law is a bad one; you must see that your men carry out your orders to the letter.” Many of course, did not take him seriously, believing this to be an unwinnable fight, but less than two weeks later, establishments serving alcohol on Sundar were raided throughout the city, no matter who was the purveyor or how politically connected. Proof of this was the subsequent trial of Pat “King” Callahan, an ex-Assemblyman who claimed he threw the key to his Chatham Square pub into the East River the day he opened the place. That Sunday, June 23, he and some of his patrons physically assaulted a rookie police officer who’d followed Roosevelt’s orders and demanded the bar be closed, knocking the man down and stomping him while he was laid up on the floor. The officer in question, however, proved more formidable than they expected, and succeeded in beating his attackers off with a nightstick. As a result, Callahan himself was ordered to appear in court for the offense and was ultimately tried for both violating the law and the assault. The rookie officer quickly became a hero, at least to Roosevelt, who said, “Bourke you have done well. You have shown great gallantry…the Board is behind you.”
In the following weeks, the crusade to enforce the law continued apace. June 30 was considered the “Dryest Sunday in Seven Years” when 97% of the city’s saloons were shuttered, turning a river of millions of beers and other drinks into a trickle. Saloonkeepers quickly recognized the seriousness of the situation, however, and began developing creative ways around Roosevelt’s enforcement regime. For example, the law allowed establishments to serve liquor provided it was accompanied by a meal. Enterprising owners began placing sandwiches on the bar, claiming the alcohol was merely to wash down the food with the tacit understanding it was all for show. The sandwiches would sit, untouched, rotting in place over the course of the day. Roosevelt responded by having his officers inspect the sandwiches themselves to ensure they were being eaten and that the legal standard of one drink per meal was being followed. Another technique was to hide the liquor flowing out of establishments in bags, baskets, basically anything that could hold a beverage without leaking and probably some things that couldn’t. Purveyors of establishments that didn’t normally sell liquor started to sneak it in coffee and other beverages; drinks were also ordered by other names, lemon soda was wine, plain soda was gin, and cold tea was whisky. “King” Callahan himself chose to hide it, preferring a lower profile after his legal challenges, but it was said that a steady stream of his “friends” stopped by on Sunday for a little get together.
These tactics presented a challenge for Roosevelt because the police could not enter a premises or search a person without visible evidence they were consuming alcohol or intoxicated, but he pressed on regardless, and the efficacy of his efforts continued to be apparent despite any setbacks. The Wine, Beer, and Liquor Sellers association claimed later that summer that about a quarter of the saloons in the city were facing bankruptcy and The New York Times estimated the average loss per saloon at around $20,000 each weekend as the disruption in New York’s beer economy rippled throughout the supply chain across the country. The Chicago Tribune noted, “Mr. Roosevelt has interfered with the hop-raisers of New York and Washington, with the corned-beef ranchers of the plains, the pig’s feet producers of the West, and the barley growers of the North. He is in a fair way to cost the American people millions.” The political opposition piled on as well. A Democrat United States Senator and former Governor of New York, David B. Hill wrote an open letter ridiculing Roosevelt and his fellow police commissioners as “busybody and notoriety seeking,” claiming they were “arbitrary, harsh, and technical.” He also attempted to turn it into a populist, class warfare issue. “A glass of beer with a few crackers in a humble restaurant is just as much of a poor man’s lunch on Sunday as is Mr. Roosevelt’s elaborate champagne dinner at the Union League Club.” By Sunday July 21st, people were leaving New York City proper in droves, seeking alcohol beyond Roosevelt’s reach as approximately half a million residents went to Long Island and New Jersey.
Regardless, the reform minded commissioner continued to press on with his divisive campaign and even the Liquor Seller’s Association acquiesced in August, threatening expulsion if any of its 9,000 members violated the law. Sunday, September 1, 1895 saw a new record for the driest in the city’s history. By October and early November, Roosevelt was being mocked as “the Patron Saint of Dry Sundays,” but election day was approaching and his fellow Republicans were growing fearful of a rout at the hands of Democrats and their political machine at Tammany Hall. The Republican Party itself began to distance himself from Roosevelt, saying they were not “in any way responsible for Rooseveltism.” Still, he would not relent, claiming “I shall not alter my course one handbreadth even though Tammany carries the city by 50,000,” and his tenacity continued to earn him supporters both in the city, the state, around the country, and the world. The Commercial Advertiser described him, aptly, as “the most despised and at the same time the best-loved man in the country.” They wondered, “will he succeed Col. Strong as Mayor; or Levi P. Morton as governor; or Grover Cleveland as President?” Others wondered “how soon he would be shot,” but “The whole country, it seemed, was talking about Mr. Roosevelt” for good or ill, and he was “undeniably the biggest man in New York, if not the most interesting man in public life.” Such attention does not come without risks, however, and he was targeted twice by an attempted letter bomb, one which did not go off other than a little flame and smoke, and one which was caught by security. The first he nonchalantly described as a “cheap thing.” Ultimately, The London Times declared that there “has not been a more complete triumph of the law in the municipal history of New York,” but it wasn’t enough to stave off electoral defeat. The Democrats and Tammany Hall swept every seat in the entire city, earning 80% of the German vote which had been reliably Republican until then. Roosevelt responded the next day by claiming he would continue to press ahead, “The Board will not tolerate the slightest relaxation of the enforcement of the laws, and notably the Excise Law,” but no one, probably not even Roosevelt himself, believed he would have the same success.
Over the next year, his power on the Police Commission began to wane, and he mounted one of his few retreats in private life, taking a position in Washington in the McKinley Administration as Assistant Secretary of the Navy where he would go on to reform an entire branch of the military and set the stage for an easy victory in the Spanish-American War. He would never again rule New York City, though of course he went on to become President a few short years later. The question remains: Why did Roosevelt embark on this quixotic, ultimately unwinnable crusade knowing that nineteen-twentieths, as he described it, of the people would be against him? It is certainly true that Roosevelt was a shrewd politician who realized that controversy created attention, and politicians need attention to grow in stature. It is equally true that he had a generally pugnacious attitude, and loved a fight whether he was winning or losing, but in this particular case, there was a much deeper principle at work: The equal application of the law and why it was essential for all efforts to reform a corrupt system of government controlled by political machines. Roosevelt laid out the details himself, confronted by a crowd of largely angry Germans upset by his choice to enforce the law on the 16th of July. The future president was not known as a gifted orator. He had a high pitched falsetto to his voice at times, some odd pronunciations, “speaker” was “spee-kar” and “delighted” was “dee-lighted” for example. He was also said to bite each word out with perfect yet large teeth. He was sometimes compared to a barking dog, but he did have a gift for using simple language to express complex issues, framing philosophical and principled points in words everyone could understand.
In this case, Roosevelt began by responding to Senator Hill’s open letter chastising him for enforcing the law, using the Tammany Hall Senator as an archetype of machine politics. First, he noted that the Senator himself and his cronies voted to keep the law on the books while he was governor, and his letter was a tacit admission “that it never has been honestly enforced before, and, in the next place, that he never expected it to be…for it was a law which was intended to be the most potent weapon in keeping saloons subservient allies to Tammany Hall.” This was one of the worst kept secrets in politics. Kickbacks from saloons to the police force, which was previously controlled by largely Democrat politicians, amounted to about 35% of the total budget, forget the money that was flowing directly to the politicians for the privilege of violating the law. This was even more true when it came to brothels, where the kickbacks were almost $3 million more than the total budget. Roosevelt concluded that with “a law such as this, enforced only against the poor or the honest man and violated with impunity by every rich scoundrel and every corrupt politician, the machine did indeed seem to have its yoke on the neck of the people…Where justice is bought, where favor is the price of money or political influence, the rich man held his own and the poor man went to the wall. Now all are treated exactly alike.” The sincerity with which he spoke was enough to at least temporarily win over the German audience, who loudly applauded his principled stand. A Republican Senator claimed it was “the best speech that has been made on this continent in thirty years. I am glad to know that there is a man behind it worthy of the speech.”
Political corruption in the modern era may take a different form then the old fashioned machines of Tammany Hall, but Roosevelt’s point remains equally relevant, perhaps even more so. Today, there are far more laws and executive power is far more concentrated, giving politicians even more leeway to avoid doing their sacred duty to uphold the law. Euphemisms like “prosecutorial discretion” and similar orders that instruct officials to ignore whole swaths of legislation abound in local, state, and the federal government, from so-called non violent crimes to immigration to student loans, often cheered on by the mainstream media. Politicians use their power over enforcement to dole out political favors to connected groups or who they perceive as their constituents, claiming they are protecting the interests of this group or alleviating the strain on another, believing it is up to them to decide who wins and who loses, as if the law was a game of chance. They too cite “popular sentiment,” fairness, or whatever strikes their fancy to advance their agenda, but as Roosevelt said, “My answer is that I have to do with popular sentiment only as this sentiment is embodied in legislation.” Our constitutional order divides power across three branches of government. The legislature is responsible for passing and repealing laws. The executive only for their honest enforcement. The judicial branch serves as something of a referee. Selective enforcement by the executive usurps the power of the legislative, and does so in a means that is essentially corrupt and capricious because power that is supposed to be rooted in a body of lawmakers now resides in one person, who is no longer bound by the law itself and cannot help exploiting it for their own ends, however noble the intention. You cannot violate the law and uphold it at the same time. Roosevelt made this clear in 1895, enforcing a law everyone hated and turning it into the illustration of a fundamental principle. Rare is that kind of political courage in any era, though we could certainly use it now. We should, at least, remember it.